By Thomas O’Brien, University of York, Nicoleta Toader Rîșteiu, West University of Timişoara, and Remus Creţan, West University of Timisoara
On 25 September 2013, 300 people gathered in Roşia Montană in Transylvania to protest a visit by members of the Romanian Parliament. Dressed in miners’ work suits and carrying lamps, they chanted ‘We want mining’ and ‘We want to work, not to beg’. The object of their anger was the proposed Roşia Montană gold mine and the delays around its development. Plans for the mine had first been initiated in the 1990s as the Romanian government partnered with Canadian mining firm Gabriel Resources to form the Roşia Montană Gold Corporation (RMGC). Development of the mine had been hindered by contestation between groups across the local, national, and international levels. Roşia Montană serves as a valuable lens through which to understand the character of contemporary mining practices and the ways they impact local communities. Central to this are differing understandings of mining practices, with local community perspectives of socially embedded extraction at odds with the contemporary reality.
Post-communist Romania has seen considerable social and economic upheaval, as the country adjusted to a new reality. Closure of mines and other state-run industrial sites led to mass unemployment and fracturing of communities, as people were forced to relocate in search of work and other opportunities. In this environment, opportunities provided by foreign investors such as Gabriel Resources and projects like RMGC held out the possibility of economic recovery and the rehabilitation of communities facing the threat of depopulation and collapse. On the surface, this suggests why people would be willing to protest in favour of a mine. Moving beyond these simple assumptions, our research sought to draw out local residents’ views of the mine.
An important feature of community attitudes towards the RMGC project is one of frustration. The lack of progress in the development of the mine meant that there was a feeling of uncertainty, as the community was in a kind of no-man’s land, forever waiting the realisation of the promised future. There was a sense that the mine was being delayed and hindered by local and national politicians, who were not operating in the interests of the community. This led to a sense that the community needed to act; as one resident put it, ‘if we protest, we will be hired’. Demonstrating support for the mine was viewed as a sign of commitment that would encourage decision-makers to support it. Within this apparently simple motivation, there were more complex considerations around the viability of the community. One resident captured this concern when they stated the mine ‘is important, as our children would not be working abroad anymore.’ The mine therefore represented a basis for hope, regenerating a community that had experienced a period of decline, bringing it back to life.
In expressing this hope for the future, residents were also clear they expected the reopened mine to operate in the interests of the local population. This was illustrated by a member of the community who argued that ‘gold should be exploited wisely, but by the locals, on a legal basis, as it is in the case of wood, with the old methods and locals to have priority.’ Rather than uncritically accepting the mine and the jobs it would potentially bring, the community expressed a clear vision that would preserve a way of life that went beyond economic benefits. By drawing on the importance of place and linking this to traditional gold mining techniques it was argued that it would be possible to bring in tourists by emphasising the heritage of the region.
The challenge facing the community is that their vision of mining is at odds with the contemporary practice, which often involves multinational corporations operating at a scale far removed from local concerns. Promises to support the community through the provision of local services were couched in a desire to maximise resource extraction. Reflecting on the ability of the proposed benefits to impact attitudes, a former RMGC employee argued:
The NGOs that were pro consisted of members from the company, and those against had patriotic feeling and healthier principles, but, in time, they were conquered by the benefits
The point being that even where there is opposition to a large-scale project, the alternatives are likely to be limited, leading to residents acquiescing in order to preserve some element of their community. This further complicates the apparent support for the mine, raising questions about the motivations of those protesting.
The experience of Roşia Montană demonstrates the challenges facing rural, resource dependent communities. A desire to maintain a way of life is caught between a drive to intensify extraction and a desire to preserve a familiar way of life. Either approach has considerable costs to the local community, challenging its longer-term viability in different ways. Protests in favour of the mine should therefore be seen as an attempt to gain attention, representing a sense of frustration with the status quo. To truly understand their motivations it is necessary to consider what they are trying to preserve.
About the authors: Thomas O’Brien is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of York. His research focuses on environmental sociology, democratisation, leadership and social movements. Recent work has been published in British Journal of Sociology, Journal of Cultural Geography, and Urban Geography. Nicoleta Toader Rîșteiu is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, West University of Timişoara. She is a high-school geography teacher and her research interests include issues connected to resource extraction at Roşia Montană, Romania. She published a co-authored paper in Eurasian Geography and Economics in 2021. Remus Crețan is Professor of Human Geography at West University of Timisoara, Romania. His research includes urban, regional and cultural geographies, more specifically he has studied ethnic identities, (post)memories, social movements, political ecology and place naming in Central and Eastern Europe. Previous work has appeared in journals such as International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Urban Geography, Eurasian Geography and Economics, Cities, Area, and Environmental Politics.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andredea/51871645 (CC BY 2.0) accessed 6 May 2021
Suggested Further Reading
Ey, M. and Sherval, M. (2016) ‘Exploring the Minescape: Engaging with the Complexity of the Extractive Sector’, Area, 48(2): 176-82.
Kojola, E. (2019) ‘Bringing Back the Mines and a Way of Life: Populism and the Politics of Extraction’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 109(2): 371-381.
Perrault, T. (2018) ‘Mining, Meaning and Memory in the Andes’, The Geographical Journal, 184(3): 229-241.